Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to take a toll on tribal communities in the Southwest. Tribal nations and pueblos have had some of the worst outbreaks in the country.
The pandemic exacerbates educational challenges faced by Indigenous youth, including spotty broadband access and limited opportunities for culturally relevant education. Lawmakers and teachers are working to find creative solutions to support Native students during the pandemic.
Native students need to be taught in a way that makes them feel valued, said Monica Tsethlikai, a Zuni researcher and associate professor at Arizona State University.
Her research and policy recommendations were featured by the Society for Research in Child Development this month.
“A lot of our children are very quiet and won’t speak up for themselves, because culturally that would be disrespectful,” she said. “But in a western system, if you don’t speak up and tell everybody what you know, you’re not smart. For the pueblos, there are vast systems of knowledge not represented in western academia, that can give these students a stronger sense of self.”
Incorporating Indigenous culture and language into education could help prevent more learning loss during the pandemic, Tsethlikai said. Summer school programs and after-school programs should also be supported.
“These kids that were already struggling, they’ve lost a year of learning,” she said. “If you expect them to pick everything right back up, that’s setting them up to fail. But if you make the material interesting to them on a cultural level, you help support them as individuals.”
Educators must also acknowledge the trauma of Native students losing elders to the virus and being isolated from family and many cultural ceremonies.
Many tribes and pueblos have had stringent lockdowns and restrictions during the pandemic.
The Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health created a book and worksheet packet to help Indigenous youth and their families cope with cultural impacts of the virus.
More than 37,000 copies of “Our Smallest Warriors, Our Strongest Medicine: Overcoming COVID-19,” have been distributed. The book addresses public health precautions, grief and social distancing.
“There are many things we cannot control during this pandemic,” the book says. “But we are still strong. Our ancestors and tribes overcame many difficult and challenging things.”
Bureau of Indian Education schools on the Navajo Nation will have remote classes until at least November. Other public and private schools in New Mexico and Arizona are a patchwork of in-person, hybrid and fully remote learning.
But the double whammy of school closures and limited internet access “have the potential to widen the gap between Native American students and their counterparts and to exacerbate educational disparities,” University of New Mexico researchers wrote in a report published this summer.
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission estimates that 46.6% of households on tribal lands have basic broadband access. That number is 92% on nontribal lands.
U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich wrote a letter to Ajit Pai, chairman of the FCC, this month urging the agency to “bridge the digital divide” on Native lands.
“Now more than ever, broadband services are vital to providing and maintaining essential community services, including ensuring members have access to telemedicine, virtual learning, and teleworking capabilities,” the lawmakers wrote.
Heinrich and Rep. Ben Ray Luján also introduced the Tribal Connect Act this month. That bill would connect more tribes to an FCC program offering affordable internet for public schools and libraries.
In the meantime, schools are finding creative solutions during the pandemic.
The Central Consolidated School District in northwest New Mexico began a hybrid learning program Sept. 14.
The district serves 17 schools in Newcomb, Naschitti, Shiprock, Kirtland and Ojo Amarillo, and the student population is 90% Native American.
The district has spent $3 million on computers and $500,000 to increase internet bandwidth so students can access remote classes.
“We purchased mobile WiFi hotspots to put on our buses,” said Kyle Archibeque, the district’s finance director. “So if we can get out to some of those remote locations and they can get cellular service, we can make those WiFi hotspots. We also installed satellites outside of our buildings so people can come to our parking lots and get the internet they need.”
Private companies are expanding internet service for students on tribal lands.
Sacred Wind Communications installed eight free WiFi hotspots this year for students and teachers on the Navajo Nation, said CEO John Badal.
“I’m glad that we have done this, but I consider this a Band-Aid,” Badal told the state legislature’s Indian Affairs Committee on Sept. 1. “We can’t expect our children to sit at a WiFi hotspot during the heat of summer or the cold winter and expect them to have access to equal education in these environments.”
The company worked with schools in To’hajiilee and Farmington to provide free broadband for families this year, and it has plans to expand that coverage.
Tsethlikai said pandemic relief funds open up opportunities to give Native children the tools they need to succeed.
“There is a positive way out of this for our children,” she said. “But there are no easy, cheap solutions. We have to be dedicated to tackling not only the problems that are going to arise because of COVID-19, but really addressing the core issues that have been there all along.”